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[words: 1800]



CHAPTER XXVIII (pp 229-235)

A PIEBALD PILFERER


ONE could but notice that he was a strikingly handsome bird, this magpie, as he stood well in view on the grass near a hawthorn bush. He was rarely so plainly to be seen, but just now he was seeking nesting material, and his quest had brought him to the side of this bush, where he expected to find some dead thorn twigs. A short burst of February sunshine made beautifully evident the rich green metallic gloss on his black feathers, which were in striking contrast to the white of his scapulars and under parts. It was noticeable, too, that he was a bird of graceful form, nicely rounded of body and long of tail. Although he had the appearance of being larger than a pigeon, he was really not much bigger than that bird.

Having found a twig he adjusted it to his beak for carrying. Then he lifted and winged his way to the tree in the wood where he and his wife had built a nest. This nest was a very carefully constructed affair. Twigs had been brought, placed or woven in position, and plastered with wet clay until the deep cup of the nest was completed. It was then left for a day or two until the clay had dried hard. Then a floor of roots was put down, and softened by the addition of some vegetable down. After which the dome was built. This was very skilfully constructed with thorny twigs, and it formed an impenetrable canopy, a hole being left at one side, nearer rim than roof, for an entrance—a thorny entrance which would be punishing to the hand of a bird-nester. The completion of this strong and cosy but fortress-like home occupied the magpies nearly three weeks. It was placed high among the twigs of the tree, as the builders seemed to know by that wonderful intuition called instinct, that the spring was likely to be calm and dry. Country folk are aware of this peculiar weather wisdom of magpies, so that when they see them building a nest well down in the shelter of the larger branches, they say among themselves: "Ah! it's going to be a rough spring, windy and wet—the mags are building low." Now to revert our attention to the male magpie. When he arrived home with his twig, he passed it to his wife, who was energetically working on the roof. The similarity of the two birds, seen thus together, was striking. In fact, the only difference between the sexes is that the female is smaller and slightly shorter in the tail.

Eight days later the clutch of six eggs had been laid. They were much smaller than one would expect, and were of a blue-green cast, the light ground colour being closely speckled with brown. During the period of incubation, which lasted fourteen days, the male magpie was kept very busy (when not taking his turn on the eggs) finding food for his wife and himself. This consisted chiefly of grubs and slugs, and was frequently obtained from beneath the crusts formed by the dung of cattle. These the bird turned over with his strong beak and caught the lurking creatures beneath. When the eggs were hatched, the demand for food was so greatly increased that he and his wife were hard pressed to meet it. Now, although in general magpies are timid creatures, flying from the slightest sign of danger, the love of offspring transforms them into bold and energetic food-finders, and they incur risks which they would not face at any other period of their lives. It is during this period of their temporary departure from general character that they commit most of the (to us) sins of sucking the eggs of other birds and stealing the game and poultry chicks. Our magpie was no exception. His first attempt, I was told by an eyewitness, to secure one of the goose chicks at the farm near the wood ended in failure: being too eager, he had allowed himself to be seen by the mother goose, who had called her chicks into safety. At the second attempt he met with even worse luck, although he had made a hidden and noiseless approach. From a tree branch he had watched patiently till one of the chicks had strayed sufficiently far from its mother. Then he swooped. But either he lacked speed or had miscalculated the agility of the parent goose, for with a wing-assisted rush she caught him by the wing just as he was about to seize the tiny gosling. Momentarily bewildered, he found himself being dragged into the pond by the enraged mother, who endeavoured to force him under water. Recovering his wits, he aimed blow after blow at the head of his antagonist as he struggled with all his power to get free. In the tumult created by the flapping wings, the hissing of the goose, the screaming of the magpie, and the splashing of water as their wings beat upon it, it was impossible to know exactly what happened; but the magpie suddenly found himself free, and he lost no time in getting away. His flight, however, was clumsy, very slow, and no doubt painful. He had not proceeded far when the injured wing became quite useless, so that he fluttered down and fell in the roadway exhausted. A few minutes later he was picked up by a young lady who had a great liking for birds.

The following is compiled from information supplied to me. He was taken tenderly to the home of this young lady and made comfortable on a large cushion, made into nest shape, in a darkened corner of the kitchen where he was left alone with some minced meat and water. He had recovered his strength by the dawn of the next day, but did not leave his improvised nest till later.

In a day or two he had adapted himself to his changed conditions of life, and became quite tame, reciprocating the affection bestowed on him. His wing had evidently suffered permanent injury, for it would only enable him to make clumsy and very short journeys a-wing.

Within a week he was allowed out on the lawn and in the orchard. Here he struck up a great friendship with the dog, a large black retriever, and he could at most times of the day be found round about the kennel, perhaps helping his friend with his meal, or sitting on his shoulder endeavouring to detach the bright ring of the collar. This ring had an irresistible fascination for him, and he never relinquished his attempts to gain possession of it. You can, of course, imagine the amusing spectacle of the bird standing on the dog's shoulder, tugging away at this ring, which never gave way. The dog seemed to regard the bird's proffered friendship as a most desirable addition to the daily routine, and never manifested resentment when the bird pulled at his tail, or ear, or collar. When a farmer's milk boy saw him on the doorstep one morning he advised its owner to "get rid of it," assuring her it would bring bad luck. "Why bad luck?" she asked him. "Well, mum," said he, "everybody knows they do, 'cause they was the only birds what didn't go into the ark." But this superstitious assurance had no effect on the young lady beyond making her smile.

A large box-shaped cage had been made and hung outdoors for the magpie to sleep in at nights for safety; but after a time he preferred to sleep with his dog friend in the kennel; he seemed fully to appreciate the advantage it offered in being wind and rain proof, cosy of temperature, and a sure protection from cats. When not in the kennel, he was usually in the kitchen playing with the spoons and other bright objects, and indulging his instinct for mischief. The inherent pilfering proclivities of magpies were manifested in him for the first time when he "stole" and hid a saltspoon.

As soon as it was missed he was suspected—so well known is the love of magpies for the possession of bright objects. But exercising the amusing cunning common to these birds, he committed the "theft" so skilfully that no evidence against him could be found. Neither could the spoon—till the dog's kennel was cleaned out. Thereafter, if any article was taken by "Mag" (as he was called) it was always found in the kennel.

On one occasion the bird's deplorable habit of commandeering bright things proved to be "a blessing in disguise." His mistress was in the garden (accompanied, of course, by Mag) tending the flowers when suddenly she noticed that the ring she wore had gone from her finger. She had seen it there a few minutes before, and therefore did not expect any trouble in finding it.

But a prolonged and careful search failed to discover it. Her fiancÚ had placed the ring on her finger, to act as an engagement ring, the day before he went to sea. It was a heirloom in his family, and was given to him by his mother on her deathbed, and he valued it beyond all things—with the exception of herself. He had said that he would entrust it to nobody else—and now she had lost it.

He was due to return in seven days, and the ring must be found before then. An organized search was made by all members of the family without result. The next day she continued the search alone, and feeling greatly distressed, she said to the bird, who was as usual pottering around: "Oh, Mag! how can I tell him; what will happen!" But at that moment Mag was making off towards the dog's kennel. Annoyed that he should desert her for the dog at such a time, she called sharply: "Mag, come here!" But the bird did not make the usual response. Ignoring her, Mag continued on his way, and when she went after him, he quickened his pace. However, she caught him just as he was entering the kennel. Dragging him out, she was astonished to see that he held the lost ring in his beak. Overjoyed, she picked him up and kissed him, muttering: "So you found it, Mag, you found it; and they say that magpies bring bad luck." At the wedding that followed, Mag was one of the guests of honour, and was allowed to waddle about on the wedding-breakfast table and sample the various eatables—to the amusement of the company, for his exploit with the lost ring, which had banished so much unhappiness, had been made known to them.


Another George Hearn anecdote on previous page....